It is regrettable but not surprising that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the premiers of Canada's 10 provinces have failed to come to terms on a new constitution that would spell out the powers of the federal and provincial governments. Canada's was a reluctant federation from the start. Ontario and the heavily populated industrial east pulled the far-flung western provinces, kicking and screaming, into the federation many decades ago. Today Alberta in the west, French-speaking Quebec in the east, and the nation's eight other provinces are tugging in opposite directions, for different reasons, to retain their autonomy. Mr. Trudeau is pressing for a strong centralized federal government.
Any successful attempt to "patriate" or bring home the constitution from Britian will home to take account of Canada's diversity and the pull for provincial independence. Prime Minister Trudeau's decision to call the constitutional convention was a response to Quebec's refusal last spring to endrose a proposal that would have put the province on record as supporting negotiations aimed at separating Quebec from the rest of Canada. Mr. Trudeau pledged at that time to seek a constitution that would take account of the French-speaking community's desire for more recognition of minority rights.
But the push for greater provincial autonomy is also coming from the sparsely populated wheat-growing, oil-rich province of Alberta, where there is strong resentment over Ottawa's setting of freight rates and oil prices that the Trudeau government insists is in the national interest but that makes it difficult for the westerners to develop their own natural resources and, for instances, to build their own beef processing plants. These are legitimate concerns that must be addressed if future attemps to draw up a new constitution are to succeed.
Certainly any effort by Mr. Trudeau now to bypass the provinces and turn to the canadian Parliament to devise a charter will meet with strong legal and political resistance. A constitution cannot be forced on the provinces, but a public referendum on the constitutional question would at least test the depth of Canadians' desire for a new form of government.
Recent public opinion polls in the western provinces, as well as last spring's referendum in Quebec, would seen to indicate that most Canadians do not want separation, are not interested in seeing the breakup of the federation. They remain loyal to Canada, to their challenge for Prime Minister Trudeau and the provincial leaders is not to give up but to continue to search for the right constitutional formula that property reflects those loyatlies.